V P Franklin & Bettye Collier-Thomas. The Journal of African American History. Volume 87. Winter 2002.
The Special Issue published in celebration of the 80th Anniversary of The Journal of Negro History (JNH) focused on what African American intellectuals do in general, and what historians and other social scientists have done best in the pages of JNH. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) was formed in Chicago in October 1915 by Carter G. Woodson, George Cleveland Hall, W. B. Hargrove, Alexander L. Jackson, and James E. Stamps for “the collection of sociological and historical data on the Negro, the study of peoples of African blood, the publishing of books in this field, and the promotion of harmony between the races.” The first issue of the JNH appeared shortly thereafter in January 1916, and Carter G. Woodson, the editor, made it clear that this was to be “a quarterly scientific magazine” committed to publishing scholarly research and documents on the history and cultures of Africa and peoples of African descent around the world.
From the beginning Carter G. Woodson knew that the JNH would be important for “race vindication.” “When the public saw a well-printed scientific magazine, presenting scholarly current articles and valuable documents giving facts scarcely known,” Woodson recalled in 1925, “the students of history and correlated fields highly praised the effort and warmly welcomed the publication.” Woodson understood that publishing these articles and collecting these materials was the only way “that the Negro [could] escape the awful fate of becoming a negligible factor in the thought of the world.” The activities pursued by the members of the ASNLH would “enable scientifically trained men [and women] to produce treatises based on the whole truth.”
In Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths: Autobiography and the Making of the African American Intellectual Tradition, V. P. Franklin used the life-writings of African American literary artists and political leaders to demonstrate that “race vindication” was a major activity for black intellectuals from the early nineteenth century. African American preachers, professors, publishers, and other highly educated professionals put their intellect and training in service to “the race” to deconstruct the discursive structures erected in science, medicine, the law, and historical discourse to uphold the mental and cultural inferiority of African peoples. The autobiographical works written by Alexander Crummell, Ida Wells-Barnett, James Weldon Johnson, Harry Haywood, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and W. E. B. Du Bois described the nature of the relationship between experience and ideology. These important spokespersons used their life writings to tell the truth about themselves and their people, and expose the lies about the nature of European and American cultures and societies being spread internationally by white supremacists. While the autobiographical writings of Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Amiri Baraka no longer presented an overarching concern for race vindication, the biographical studies of these artists and intellectuals presented in Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths revealed the important connections between their personal experiences and ideological commitments.
Black Nationalists and Race Vindication
Many biographical studies of African American intellectuals have focused on the individual’s commitment to telling the truth about Africa and people of African descent. Those black preachers, publishers, and other professionals in the nineteenth century who subscribed to black nationalist ideological positions understood the importance of race vindication. Along with the belief in distinct and positive African group traits, the consciousness of shared oppression at the hands of whites, the awareness of mutual duties and responsibilities of African peoples to each other, and the need for black selfdetermination and solidarity, black nationalists from the early nineteenth century believed in and practiced race vindication.
Victor Ullman, Dorothy Sterling, and Cyril E. Griffith in their book-length biographies of Martin Robison Delany clearly documented his preoccupation with race vindication from his editorship of The Mystery in Pittsburgh between 1843 and 1847 to his last major work The Principia of Ethnology: The Origin of Races and Color, with an Archeological Compendium of Ethiopian and Egyptian Civilization, completed in 1878. In The African Dream: Martin R. Delany and the Emergence of Pan-African Thought, Cyril Griffith pointed out that “because of the rape of Africa and the enslavement of four million of its sons and daughters in the South, Delany decided it was time for a black leader to expose the ‘lie’ that Africans were inferior, and reveal how this racial falsehood began.”
Seeing himself as the tireless defender of the honor of the African race, Delany vowed to uncover the European plot that denigrated his people: I should not feel, whatever I may have effectively done, that my work had been more than half completed, did I not, as a wronged and outraged son of Africa, give to the world this crowning act of infamy against a people, the facts of which have ever been closely concealed, and even denied, while thousands of the world’s good people have no knowledge that such facts transpired.”
Other black nationalist thinkers made the same ideological commitments. Biographer Joel Schor in Henry Highland Garnet: A Voice of Black Radicalism in the Nineteenth Century pointed out that Garnet’s famous 1843 “Address to the Slaves,” in which the fiery Presbyterian preacher called for mass slave insurrections, made the argument that violent uprisings vindicated the enslaved Africans from charges that they had accepted their condition. “Brethren, your oppressors aim to … make you as much like brutes as possible,” proclaimed Garnet. “To such degradation it is sinful in the extreme for you to make voluntary submission. The divine commandments you are in duty bound to reverence and obey. If you do not obey them, you will surely meet the displeasure of the Almighty.” Compared to earlier black nationalist statements, Joel Schor believed that Garnet’s call for violent insurrection “constitutes his original contribution” to the black nationalist ideology of that era.
Joel Schor also presented a detailed discussion of Garnet’s The Past and the Present Condition, and the Destiny of the Colored Race, first published in 1848, and noted its emphasis on race vindication. In that pamphlet, “Garnet related the contributions of Africans to ancient Hebraic, Egyptian, and Roman civilization and to the glory of Ethiopia.” Even more important, Garnet described the achievements of African peoples, 11 when the Anglo-Saxons were living in caves as barbarous brutes.” Unlike Delany, however, and despite his support for voluntary emigration to Africa, Garnet saw African Americans’ destiny in the United States. “For Garnet, the Negro Americans destiny was to be found here among whites…. Negroes, he believed, would hasten the death of prejudice and its effects through their personal virtues of temperance, frugality, and industry, through engaging in agricultural pursuits and acquiring knowledge of the sciences and the arts, and finally through resistance in the name of eternal justice.”
The most important African American preacher who supported African emigration in the nineteenth century was Henry McNeal Turner. Biographer Stephen Ward Angell in Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African American Religion in the South argued that at least in the early years, Turner emphasized African emigration as a part of a larger plan for race vindication. Angell pointed out that as late as 1875 Turner declared that “the A.M.E. [African Methodist Episcopal] Church was already ‘the chief agent in the elevation of the Negro in this country; the United States. Now Turner believed that God had predestined his denomination to play a glorious role in spreading Christianity in the continent he called ‘the fatherland.’… He was less inclined to advocate mass emigration to Africa than he would be in later years. He believed that African missions could best be advanced by ‘a slow and gradual operation’ with African Americans going there a few at a time. He thought the black missionaries should settle permanently among the people they sought to convert.”
As conditions deteriorated for African Americans at the end of the nineteenth century, Turner pushed broader African emigration plans, particularly after his several successful visits to the continent. However, Angell also noted that Turner’s “vigorous support for emigrationism did not preclude his support for African Americans who chose to remain where they were. While he preferred that they return to Africa, he firmly believed that black Americans had earned the full rights to full citizenship in the United States.” Moreover, Turner remained committed to the vindication of Africans in this society, and as white American theologians contributed to the burgeoning anti-black literature of the 1880s and 1890s, “Turner straightforwardly denied all claims that people of African ancestry were inferior and he repeatedly affirmed the equality of all human beings and the desirability of a color-blind society…. Laws that barred African Americans from any profession or occupation violated this fundamental human equality and should be viewed as an unjust imposition by the dominant white race to oppress the freed people.” Not only did Turner proclaim “the superlative deeds already accomplished by African Americans,” he systematically “rebutted all of the supposedly scientific justifications for the subordination of blacks advanced in the late nineteenth century.”
Clergymen, Journalists, and Politicians
While Henry McNeal Turner often clashed with his fellow AME preacher Theophilus Gould Steward over personal and denominational issues, they overlapped in their commitments to race vindication. Whereas Turner took up the cause in the columns of his newspapers, The Southern Christian Advocate, Voice of Missions, and Voice of the People, Steward addressed race vindication in his theological treatises. William Seraile in his recent biography Voice of Dissent: Theophilus Gould Steward (1843-1924) and Black America pointed out that Steward’s third book was particularly controversial.
In 1888 Steward wrote his most provocative examination of theology, The End of the World; or Clearing the Way for the Fullness of Gentiles. His thesis challenged AngloSaxon superiority by stating that the world would not end in the biblical sense of a fiery destruction but in the destruction of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. It would be at this time that “Ethiopia will stretch out her hands unto God.”… He believed that God would someday punish Anglo-Saxons and other whites for misusing Christianity to enslave Africans and exterminate Indians. He declared that the destruction of AngloSaxons would lead to a world embracing Christianity as the African, the new prophet of a bigotry-free Christianity, would represent a society free of corruption and evil.
Other black preachers engaged in scholarly research that served to vindicate the black race. George Washington Williams served as a Baptist minister in Boston, published his own newspaper, The Commoner, but later moved to Cincinnati where he became the first African American elected to the Ohio legislature. Williams was best known for his major historical works, the two volume History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880, published in 1882 and 1883; and A History of Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, published in 1887. In George Washington Williams: A Biography, John Hope Franklin declared that Williams sought to revise earlier perspectives on African Americans in the U.S. in general, and the role of black soldiers during the Civil War in particular. Although Williams aspired to writing “scientific history” based on solid documentation, it was difficult “when the very atmosphere in which he wrote was charged with racial antipathies and filled with assumptions about Negro inferiority.” Franklin concluded that although “the zeal to ‘revise’ could lead, at times to excesses,” Williams’s History of the Negro Race was a major achievement, representing “an enormous amount of research employing new as well as traditional methods.” Following the publication of A History of Negro Troops, which was also well-received in both popular and scholarly circles, Williams enjoyed wide esteem until his untimely death from tuberculosis in Blackpool, England in 1891.
African American journalists and publishers in the black press often competed with the preachers and politicians for the position as “the leading spokespersons for the race.” However, biographies of important black politicians and journalists reveal that they too engaged in race vindicationist activities. Unlike theologian Theophilus Gould Steward, the most influential African American journalist and politician in the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass, shared “the common nineteenth-century American belief in and admiration for the reputed Anglo-Saxon genius for republican democracy,” but, according to Waldo E. Martin, he “upbraided them for power madness and its evil consequences.” In The Mind of Frederick Douglass Martin argued that Douglass had a kind of love-hate relationship with Anglo-Saxonism, and never fully subscribed to the nationalists’ enthusiasm about the African past or promise for the future. While acknowledging African contributions to ancient civilizations, Douglass was dismayed by the poverty and backwardness he saw when he visited contemporary Egypt. “Although he hoped for African regeneration as expounded in the often-quoted biblical prophecy-‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God’-he was neither actively committed to nor directly involved in its realization.” In fact, Waldo Martin concluded that “Douglass’s attitudes toward Africans and Africa were quite negative” and in his speeches when Douglass contrasted the “enterprising Anglo-Saxon” with the “lazy African,” “he helped, wittingly or unwittingly, to perpetuate these degrading African stereotypes.”
At the other end of the ideological spectrum was journalist and publisher T. Thomas Fortune who used the New York Globe, Freeman, and Age, and his numerous books and articles to denounce Anglo-Saxonism and white supremacy at home and abroad. In his early years, Fortune championed political independence for African Americans and differed publicly with Frederick Douglass’s belief that the “Republican Party is the ship and all else is the ocean,” a sentiment Fortune dismissed as “political humbuggery.” Indeed, biographer Emma Lou Thornbrough emphasized the point that in the 1880s and 1890s the newspapers published by Fortune and other leading journalists represented the vanguard of a black press committed to race vindication. “Race was their raison d’etre. They were published by black men for black readers. With varying degrees of militancy, all protested against racism in their editorial pages and publicized racial achievements and acts of racial injustice in their news column.”
This journalistic tradition continued into the twentieth century. Andrew Buni in Robert L. Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier: Politics and Black Journalism pointed out that “Vann tried editorially to correct those whites who denigrated the working ability of blacks.” Buni found that between 1910 and 1940, “one of Vann’s missions in the Courier was to combat the distortions in the white press’s portrayal of black people, deliberate or not.” Because the only time the white press mentioned African Americans was in relation to crime, “Vann pledged his Courier to the policy that ‘racial achievements shall be heralded far and wide, that others, perhaps too easily despaired, may take heart for renewed effort.”‘ Buni concluded that the Courier’s emphasis on race achievements “was a means to create and maintain within blacks a feeling of pride and dignity, a sense of race consciousness that they could get from few other sources.”
Even conservative black journalist P. B. Young, who was a staunch supporter of Booker T. Washington and like his mentor was considered by most whites “an able and safe Negro leader,” engaged in race vindicationist activities. Henry Louis Suggs in P. B. Young, Newspaperman: Race, Politics, and Journalism in the New South, 1910-1962 argued that at the end of the 1930s, Young’s Norfolk Journal and Guide “had emerged as one of the most outspoken black organs in the South for civil rights and social justice.” One area where Young was particularly active was in the defense of African Americans unjustly accused of committing crimes against whites. In 1931 when nine young blacks were unfairly accused of raping two white women in Alabama, Suggs found that the newspaper provided “bold and dramatic coverage during the Scottsboro trials,” and “throughout the decade the Guide prominently featured articles on so-called Negro-did-it crimes.” Oftentimes, whites, particularly women, would claim that they were attacked by “a Negro,” and an innocent African American was usually arrested and charged. When William Harper, a black man, was sentenced to death by an all-white jury in Norfolk in January 1931 for the alleged robbery and attempted rape of a white woman, new evidence was subsequently discovered and the Guide labeled the first trial “a frame-up” and called for a new trial. In the second trial it was revealed that the woman had lied, and Harper was acquitted. The Guide had exposed the incident as another “Negro-did-it crime” and in its headline following Harper’s release proclaimed, “Justice Vindicated.”
Even black politicians, who as a group tended to have divided loyalties and oftentimes supported the interests of the Democratic or Republican party over those of the black voters who put them in elective office, also were known to have engaged in race vindicationist activities. Loren Schwininger’s biography of James T. Rapier revealed not only his important role in the National Colored Labor Union in 1869 and the Alabama Colored Labor Union in 1870, but also as a member of the U.S. Congress in 1874, he eloquently defended the civil rights bill that became law in 1875. In that 1874 speech Rapier “denied that Negroes were innately inferior and accused Conservative [Democrats] of wanting to establish a system of caste…. He refused to equivocate on the question of equal rights for Negroes … ‘I cannot willingly accept anything less than the full measure of rights as a man, because I am unwilling to present myself as a candidate for any brand of inferiority.”‘ According to Schwininger, when Rapier’s speech was later published “it was read by Negroes everywhere with a deep sense of pride.”
In South Carolina in 1895 when white Democratic leaders convened a 154-member state constitutional convention in Columbia specifically to draw up measures to disfranchise South Carolina’s black voters, Republican politician Robert S. Smalls was one of only six black members. In From Slavery to Public Service: Robert Smalls, 1839-1915, Okon Edet Uya noted that the six black members challenged the white Democrats’ charges of the “innate inferiority of blacks,” and in a speech before the convention Robert Smalls declared that “my race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.” Uya found that “Smalls’ defense of his race … drew praise from the convention delegates, prominent black citizens in the nation, and some newspapers in the state.”
During the years he was active in political circles in Boston, Archibald Grimke called himself a “political independent,” but in the late 1880s and 1890s he actively supported Democratic candidates and elected officials and sought their support for his appointment to public office. Indeed, it was only after his return from his diplomatic post in the Dominican Republic in 1898, a position he received from Democratic President Grover Cleveland, that Grimke came back into contact with the black world and its cultural and intellectual circles. As a columnist for the New York Age, and later as an official for the NAACP in Washington, D.C., Grimke took positions that sought to vindicate African Americans of unfounded charges of mental and cultural inferiority. Unfortunately, biographer Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., failed to take seriously Grimke’s partisan political stances, conservative ideological commitments, and preoccupation in his later years with “defending the race” in the face of widespread attacks during and after World War I. Instead, Bruce accepted Grimke’s claims of “political independence” at face value, and as a result overlooked or played down Grimke’s contributions to the literature on race vindication.
Defending Black Womanhood
In the late nineteenth century, spokespersons for the race were often relentless in the defense of black womanhood in the face of inaccurate and unfair characterizations in the white press. Ida B. Wells began her “Anti-Lynching Crusades” in 1892 following the murder of three friends by a white mob in Memphis, TN, because she wished to vindicate black men of accusations that they were regularly assaulting and raping white women. Wells continued her campaigns when the additional charge was made that it was because of the “low and lascivious nature of black women” that black men were attacking “virginal white females.” Wells and Frances E. W. Harper, the poet, novelist, and feminist lecturer, had overlapping concerns about lynching and the contemporary conceptions of black womanhood. Melba Joyce Boyd in a recent biographical study of Harper observed that “Harper and Wells were known for their aggressive, verbal assaults against lynching, which constituted a critical aspect of a black feminist politics, the elder [Harper] reinforcing the younger, extending the legacy. More than any other younger feminist, Wells represented ideological and activist politics similar to Harper.”
The National Association of Colored Women (NACW) grew directly out of this need to defend black womanhood at the end of the nineteenth century. In her biographical study of Mary Church Terrell, who in 1895 served as the NACW’s first president, Beverly Washington Jones contrasted Ida Wells and Frances E. W. Harper’s feminist concerns for women’s rights and female equality, with Mary Church Terrell’s more conservative ideology. In Quest for Equality: The Life and Writings of Mary Eliza Church Terrell, 18631954, Jones found that while she embraced the NACW program that “addressed racial problems through the elevation of black women… Terrell’s advocacy of the domestic role of women did not unequivocally espouse the social equality of women.” Under Terrell’s leadership (1896-1901), the NACW pursued a conservative, though pragmatic, social welfare program “aimed not to alter the domestic nature of the social position of its members, but to make them better wives and mothers. It was devoted to the betterment of the entire race, not just the improvement in the status of black women.”
At the same time, the middle class black women who organized the NACW were in the vanguard of the progressive reform movement of the era that sought improved social welfare services for the black and white poor, and increased educational and training opportunities, particularly for black women and children. Unfortunately, interracial attempts to address the employment and educational problems for black women were easily sidetracked by the racist statements and actions of white men and women involved in these activities. In the post-World War I era, Lugenia Burns Hope, social activist and wife of Morehouse College president John Hope, attempted to work with white women and their organizations on pressing social problems in Atlanta. Jacqueline Anne Rouse in Lugenia Burns Hope: Black Southern Reformer examined black women’s social welfare activities and found that these women did not allow white indifference and opposition to frustrate their plans and programs. “Black female reformers became national spokespersons for societal changes by challenging factors that limited them as women and especially as Blacks. They founded their own female associations or worked within traditional race organizations in order to affect change. They emerged not only as Progressives but even more as race people.”
Literary Artists and the “Racial Mountain”
James Weldon Johnson, one of the most influential African American political leaders and literary artists in the early twentieth century, believed that the contributions of black folk to art, music, dance, and literature served to vindicate them of charges of mental or cultural inferiority. As he noted in 1921 in the introduction of The Book of American Negro Poetry, “the final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced.” In the case of the African American, “nothing will do more to change the mental attitude and raise his status than the demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art.”
While Johnson believed that “the creative genius of the Negro” could vindicate the race from charges of cultural or mental inferiority, he disagreed with those leaders who argued that the literary works created by black artists should serve as “race propaganda.” In the 1920s debate over “the Criteria for Negro Art” W. E. B. Du Bois declared that “All art is propaganda…. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.” Tony Martin in Literary Garveyism observed that “those of the Garvey persuasion saw ‘propaganda’ as a desirable element in art, if art was to have any purpose.” Whereas Du Bois and Garvey condemned the use of black folk expressions by black and white artists to present negative perspectives on black life, Johnson and philosopher and literary critic Alain Locke argued in favor of the artist’s “creative self-expression” and praised the work of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and the other young artists of the 1920s because they considered their literary creations important contributions to “American” art.
The biographers of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Sterling Brown have highlighted these artists’ use of the cultural forms and practices of the rural and urban black folk, such as the blues, jazz, language and dialect in their poetry, short stories, and other literary works, which reflected their deep appreciation for the beauty, strength, and significance of black culture in the United States. However, even though they may have written “race poetry” at times that was considered “propagandistic,” Hughes, Hurston, McKay, and Brown were not overly preoccupied with “race vindication” in their artistic works. While these younger artists preferred to use black folk expressions as content for their literary works, and demonstrated boundless enthusiasm and justifiable pride in their “Negro-ness,” they decided to create personal footpaths around, rather than attempt to scale, the “Racial Mountain.”
The great artist Paul Robeson came to a new understanding of African and African American folk culture, and pride in his African heritage, after he enrolled in London University’s School of Oriental Studies in the early 1930s, where he studied several West African languages. Biographer Martin B. Doberman showed that Robeson’s shift during that decade from classical European music in his concerts to the Spirituals and folk music from all over the world was the direct result of his renewed appreciation of African and African American folk music. Robeson came to believe that the folk songs were “the music of basic realities, the spontaneous expression by the people. .. of elemental emotions.” Doberman concluded that “Robeson studied and performed Russian, Hebrew, Slavonic, and Highland folk music because to him it was close to the underlying spirit of African American folk songs.”
Black Workers and the Capitalist Economy
As a result of the worldwide economic collapse in the 1930s, many African American spokespersons came to view the problem of unemployment as the number one issue that needed to be addressed in black communities in the North and South. While inadequate schooling, Jim Crow segregation, political disfranchisement, and mob violence were all pressing concerns, lack of employment opportunities limited African Americans ability to help themselves and build their own communities. Raymond Gavins argued that for Gordon Blaine Hancock, professor of sociology at Virginia Union University and pastor of Richmond’s Moore Street Baptist Church, black survival, particularly during the economic depression, would depend on jobs. “Salvation for the beleaguered Negro, in his view, necessitated a gospel of work. ‘By jobs and jobs alone shall the Negro live!’ After all, said Hancock, it was the income from jobs which enabled blacks to pay church dues, make bank deposits, patronize Negro professionals, buy from Negro enterprises, and maintain selfrespect.” Hancock believed that the “Negro intelligentsia” paid insufficient attention to this issue. Gavins pointed to numerous newspaper columns and articles where Hancock argued that “what these ‘give-me-taffy’ Negroes failed to consider, however, was that unless the common work-a-day folks had jobs with which to pay them, they would be less ‘upper crust.’ If the so-called big Negroes were tired of job propaganda, he said, then let them stop riding the backs of the people.”
Other “big Negroes” and spokespersons who also emphasized the needs of the black working class differed with Hancock’s assessment of the most appropriate strategy for advancement. For example, Hancock distrusted the white labor movement, and the “violent suppression of Negro attempts to organize, the bigotry of white workers, and the racist practices of labor unions precluded the effectiveness of those strategies in the South.” On the other hand, the various biographers of A. Philip Randolph demonstrated that this champion of the interests of the black worker placed his hopes and efforts in an interracial labor movement, and that over the long haul, Randolph succeeded in winning a prominent place for the interests of the black worker on the agenda of the organized labor movement in the United States.
William H. Harris in Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), 1925-1937 pointed out that the important breakthroughs for black workers came in 1925 with the organization of the BSCP, in 1929 when its locals received federal charters from the American Federation of Labor (AFL), in 1934 when the AFL created the Committee of Five on Negro Discrimination, and in 1935 when the BSCP became the first all-black union to receive an international charter from the AFL. Although these achievements raised the issue of the relations of organized labor to black workers, BSCP officials were still struggling. None of the BSCP organizers were paid in the 1930s, and some lost their homes as a result. “Their consolation was that they had contributed a new understanding between black and white workers,” Harris concluded, “and through their efforts raised the level of participation for black people in American society.”
With the March on Washington Movement in 1941 and his alliances with the NAACP, National Urban League, and other black groups throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Randolph was able to build the bridge between organized labor and the emerging civil rights movement. Paula F. Pfeffer in A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement found that “by the late 1950s he began to see Afro-Americans reap the benefits of their partnership with labor as some segments of organized labor financially backed the civil rights movement.”
During the depression decade A. Philip Randolph was one of a group of black intellectuals and leaders who believed that black and white workers must come together to advance the interests of the working class in the face of the collapse of the capitalist economy. Brian Urquhart in Ralph Bunches An American Life noted that during the 1930s, Bunche was a professor of political science at Howard University, and along with his colleagues Abram Harris and E. Franklin Frazier, questioned Du Bois, Walter White, and other older black leaders’ call for “racial solutions to the problems created for African Americans by the Great Depression.” Urquhart discussed Bunches A World View of Race (1936) and other writings of this period. “Although race and racism were essential elements of the problems of Black Americans,” declared Urquhart, “Bunche believed at this time that it was a mistake to assume that their problems were basically racial in nature. Most of these problems, he felt, stemmed from the wider failure to improve the standard of living of the working classes. He believed that much black racial ideology was simply a reaction to white racist assumptions and practices and to the biases of the dominant white culture, and did not therefore address the primary needs of Black Americans.”
Bunche had little appreciation for the race vindicationist aspect of black nationalist ideologies which sought not only to dispel “white racist assumptions” about African peoples, but to tell the truth about African and African American history, culture, and contributions to world civilization. Kenneth Robert Janken in Rayford W. Logan and the Dilemma of the African American Intellectual found that Logan disagreed with the “class” positions assumed by Howard’s “Marxist clique” in general, and Ralph Bunches views in particular. Logan was a member of the history department, and his differences with Bunche became public at a 1941 conference on “The Negro in the Americas.” In the debates over independence for the Caribbean islands, “Bunche refused to inject the issue of race into discussions of social justice.” Logan had argued for the importance of nationalism as well as economic development for nation-building. Janken noted that “clearly, Bunche thought, Logan placed too much emphasis on race. Logan’s reply was equally to the point. He said that under white domination, Negroes were in misery and poverty under colonialism, [but] that under Negro domination, they might be in misery and poverty but independent, that there would thus be a reduction in the area in which white was a badge of supremacy.”
Unlike Ralph Bunche, Rayford Logan understood from his own personal experience the significance of the race vindicationist activities of Carter G. Woodson and the ASNLH. In a profile of Woodson published in 1945, Logan confessed: “This writer left one of the best high schools for Negroes in the United States [M Street High School, Washington, D.C.] laboring under the belief that he could not do many things simply because as a Negro he did not have the ability to do them. If Negro History Week has done nothing else, it has removed this inferiority complex from the thinking of large numbers of Negroes and has given many others a sense of pride and optimism.”
In the twentieth century the black preachers, publishers, and professors were joined by other black professionals who made their own distinctive contributions to race vindication. An increasingly important group was the black lawyers who challenged in the courts legal segregation, political disfranchisement, and economic discrimination in the U.S. As Dean of Howard University’s Law School, Charles Hamilton Houston understood the need to train “capable and socially alert Negro lawyers” who would “meet the group needs.” “The Negro lawyer must be trained as a social engineer and group interpreter,” Houston observed. “Due to the Negro’s social and political condition… the Negro lawyer must be prepared to anticipate, guide and interpret his group’s advancement.” Genna Rae McNeil in Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights concluded that Houston “explained to his students, discrimination, injustice, and the denial of full citizenship rights and opportunities on the basis of race and a background of slavery could be challenged within the context of the Constitution if it were creatively, and innovatively interpreted and used.” Houston’s approach to civil rights litigation was vindicated by his former student Thurgood Marshall who led the NAACP attorneys in the monumental Brown v. Board of Education decision which declared segregation in public education unconstitutional.
The professors, preachers, publishers, and other black professionals examined in this Special Issue engaged in various types of activities to vindicate Africans and people of African descent from charges of mental and cultural inferiority, not to advance their personal careers or professional status, but as part of their commitment to “service to the race.” While hundreds of black professionals were committed to race vindication, the following essays present a sampling of leaders in a variety of fields. Many of these figures have not received the scholarly attention they deserve; however, they all have made significant contributions to the African American intellectual tradition.
Major Richard Robert Wright, Sr. (1855-1947) achieved celebrity as the famous black boy of Atlanta who inspired the great abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Howard at Atlanta.” When General Oliver Otis Howard asked the students at the Storrs School what message they would send to the children of the North, Wright responded “Tell them, General, we are rising.” Throughout his long life Wright maintained a strong commitment to race vindication. Wright gathered the truth of evidence about the history and culture of people of African descent. He disseminated these findings in newspapers, periodicals, journals, speeches, and pamphlets. He believed in “educating, organizing, and politicizing” for the advancement of his people, and founded numerous social and political organizations committed to race uplift. Wright understood that it was necessary for African Americans to deal collectively with the pseudo-scientific attacks being made on people of African descent. June 0. Patton’s essay And The Truth Shall Make You Free’: Richard Robert Wright Sr., Black Intellectual and Iconoclast, 1877-1897″ documents Wright’s race vindicationist activities that culminated in the founding of the American Negro Academy in 1896.
Margaret Murray Washington (1861-1925), the third wife of Booker T. Washington, was active in the black women’s club movement in Alabama and nationally, and served as president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) (1912-1916). Earlier studies of the black women’s club movement documented the connections between the NACW and the Tuskegee Machine. However, in the essay by Jacqueline Anne Rouse, we learn of Margaret Washington’s strong commitments to social activism and black advancement. Indeed, Rouse demonstrates that many of the public positions taken by Margaret Washington on such issues as lynching, social welfare, and race uplift mirrored those of the intellectuals and leaders associated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This is the first treatment of Margaret Murray Washington’s social activism and takes her “Out of the Shadow of Tuskegee.”
J. E. K. Aggrey was born in 1875 in Gold Coast, West Africa and came to the United States to study at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina in 1898. A brilliant student and teacher, Aggrey remained in the United States for over twenty years and became an influential minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Upon Aggrey’s return to West Africa in the 1920s under the auspices of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, he also greatly influenced educational activities sponsored by religious and secular missionary societies. In her essay “James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey: An African Intellectual in the United States,” Sylvia M. Jacobs examines the significant contributions made by Aggrey to race vindicationist activities in the United States and Africa.
Sharon Harley’s essay “Nannie Helen Burroughs: ‘The Black Goddess of Liberty.10 is the first serious examination of Burroughs ideological positions and intellectual concerns. During her lifetime Burroughs (1879-1961) became the champion of the black working class in general and black working women in particular. Her organizational activities and public statements reflected a commitment to the vindication of the darker men and women within the race. Harley suggests that one of the reasons Nannie Burroughs has not received the scholarly attention that she deserves is because of the forthright stances she took against any group, leader, or individual who placed his or her own self-interests above those of the masses of black working people in this country.
Whereas Nannie Burroughs vindicated the black working class in her speeches, newspaper and magazine articles, Charles Harris Wesley (1891-1987) published a pioneering study of the black working class in 1927. Renowned as a clergyman, college administrator, scholar, and former president of ASALH, Wesley challenged both the popular perceptions and historical scholarship which suggested that black workers with “mixed blood” were more efficient, intelligent and enterprising than their darker brethren. Because of his commitment to vindicating black workers from these unfounded and inaccurate assumptions and characterizations, Wesley utilized both historical documentation and social scientific data in Negro Labor in the United States, which became a seminal work in the field of Black Studies. Francille Rusan Wilson’s “Racial Consciousness and Black Scholarship: Charles H. Wesley and the Construction of Negro Labor in the United States” is the first essay to present a detailed analysis of the background and context for the writing of this important work and a discussion of its significance to the field of American and African American labor history.
The early struggle and campaigns of African American women for equal treatment on black college campuses and in higher education in general were greatly assisted by Lucy Diggs Slowe (1885-1937), the first Dean of Women at Howard University. Slowe was instrumental in the formation of the National Association of College Women in 1923, and the National Association of Deans and Advisors to Women in Colored Schools in 1929, and was dedicated to freeing black women students from the paternalistic regulations and Victorian moral codes on black college campuses. Linda M. Perkins in “Lucy Diggs Slowe: Champion of the Self-Determination of African American Women in Higher Education” documents Slowe’s commitment to the advancement of black college women into leadership positions on campus and greater control over decisions that affected their lives and careers.
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was the most influential African American woman in the twentieth century, whose legacy is found in the fields of education, government, politics, economics, social activism, and women’s rights. Elaine M. Smith’s essay “Mary McLeod Bethune’s Last Will and Testament: A Legacy for Race Vindication” presents an analysis of this important literary document which reveals her personal philosophy that ultimately reflected her organizational and institutional activities. The nine principles outlined in this “Last Will and Testament” present her vision for the advancement of African Americans, and American society in general. Smith makes clear the connection between Bethune’s ideology and the areas where she achieved greatness for herself and her people.
Alice Childress (1920-1994) was one of the most successful black women playwrights in the United States in the period from 1950 to 1990. Childress presented realistic images of black women in her plays and developed a theory and approach to black drama and theater. In “Telling the Truth: Alice Childress As Theorist and Playwright,” Olga Dugan argues that the essays Childress wrote over several decades contain a theory of black self-determinist theater that is a significant contribution to the African American intellectual tradition. An understanding of Childress’s theories about black drama not only provide important insights into her plays, but also provides a model for plays and playwrights in the future. In her analysis of the play Wine in the Wilderness, Dugan demonstrates how Childress applied her self-determinist theories to black drama.
The contemporary proponents of the need for a “color blind society” often quote from Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech to support their position. While King (1929-1968) did state in that speech that people should be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, in most of his other writings, which have generally been ignored when discussing this subject, King made clear his support for affirmative action and preferential treatment for those groups and individuals who have been oppressed historically by the laws and institutions of American society. Mary Frances Berry in her essay “Vindicating Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Road to a Color-Blind Society,” traces the discussion of the “color-blind society” to Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissent in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case which sanctioned the “separate but equal” doctrine. Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized the need for remedies for those who have suffered the effects of racism and poverty in this society. Berry makes it clear that King favored affirmative action and other compensatory measures as long as Americans and American society remain “color conscious.”